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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Aaargh, Arsenal!

A colleague once advised not to take victory laps.  His reasoning:  because every time you take one, there is someone standing in the shadows near the last quarter turn, waiting to take your knees out with a baseball bat. 

The commenters on NBC Sports Channel the other day made a great point about Chelsea in its lackluster 1-0 win on Sunday against West Brom.  The men in blue could not get much started and only had two shots on goal in the entire match, yet came away with the victory because Diego Costa took advantage of a lone West Brom defensive lapse with about ten minutes left in regulation to win the game.  Afterwards, Robbie Mustoe noted that this is the type of win that leads to championships, because Chelsea were/was not at their/its (note the allocation for English versus American usages) best during the match. 

And that's what good teams do -- they win when not playing their best.  And this is a far different team from the one that Arsenal embarrassed 3-0 at the Emirates several months ago.  Better organized and in a formation that works for them.  And that gets us to. . .  Arsenal.

The Gunners smashed West Ham almost all the way to the English Championship League three matches ago, and followed that pounding with a blasting of Basel in their final match in the Group States in the Champions League and then followed that match with a convincing 3-1 win over Stoke just on Sunday. 

And then they traveled to Everton, a team by all accounts (including that of their manager) in poor form.  The good news was that they took a 1-0 league through a fortuitous result on a free kick by Alexis Sanchez.  But then their lack of defensive depth hurt them.  They have been missing captain Per Mertesacker all year and recently lost Shkrodan Mustafi to a pulled hamstring about a week ago.  And that meant they moved Gabriel Paulista back to his natural center back position (he had been filling in at right back after Hector Bellerin was injured, back-up Matthieu Debuchy got injured and further back-up Carl Jenkinson proved ineffective).  Somehow, the chemistry with acting captain Laurent Koscielny was not there, and Everton scored once right before the end of the first half and four minutes before stoppage time began to seal a much-needed victory at Goodison Park. 

To paraphrase Robbie Mustoe's astute comment after the Chelsea-West Brom match, if Arsenal fails to win the league this season, they'll look to the 0-0 match against Middlesbrough at Emirates and this match as evidence that they were not a championship team.  Because a championship team would have found a way to score against recently promoted Middlesbrough and a championship team would have found a way to beat a downtrodden Everton yesterday.

Don't get me wrong -- this looks to be the best Gunners' team in years.  Arsene Wenger has a find in Alexis Sanchez at striker, Mesut Ozil is picking up where he left off from last year and both Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Theo Walcott are vastly improved from the year before.  The offense is high-powered and in gear.  As for the defense, well, they are not as good as Tottenham, and they miss holding mid Santi Cazorla.  Granit Xhaka has played well in spurts, but he is simple one ill-timed challenge away from a red card.  And the back line, which looked to be settled, has gone through some rough times because of injury and a rough time on Tuesday.

Are the Gunners' chances gone?  Slim?  Fading?

Hardly, as it is just too early. 

But they will need to win the games that they are supposed to -- in addition to the ones they are not -- in order to win the title.  One data point does not make a trend, as the Everton game was just a bad game for them. 


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